Fine Dining Goes Asian
Chefs trained in classical French cuisine are updating their menus with ingredients from Singapore and the region
Black moss, winter melon, kim chi and bitter gourd—ingredients like these, typically found on humble Asian menus, have made their way into the kitchens of modern European restaurants all over Singapore. How did these ingredients capture the attention and inspiration of Western-trained chefs?
Chef Ivan Brehm of The Kitchen at Bacchanalia says it is a way for restaurants to keep their offerings fresh and interesting. “Diners are savvy and well-travelled, and restaurants must constantly re-invent their cuisine,” he offered. A focus on sustainability and seasonality also drives the way chefs think about the produce they use today.
Brehm’s menu draws heavily from his restaurant’s farm in Cameron Highlands as well as produce sourced nearby such as locally farmed garoupa and Balinese sea salt. Additionally, his team forages for local plants such as wild pepper leaves, betel leaves and belimbing (a small, sour fruit from the star fruit family), all of which imbue their European-style dishes with familiar Asian flavours.
Beyond offering a taste of the familiar, using local ingredients suffuses a menu with a meaningful sense of place. Like the thrill of drinking champagne in Champagne, “you’ll enjoy food that is cooked in connection with the location you’re in more,” added Brehm.
“I think there is something very fine-dine-able about cooking a product that you paid three dollars for at the wet market. Luxury is what you with to a product, not what you pay for it.”
This mindset wasn’t always considered good for the bottom line. Within a month of opening his restaurant along Hong Kong Street in 2015, about 80 per cent of Brehm’s menu was made up of local ingredients. “But our investors told us we should tone down the Asian kink,” he let on. It’s a good thing he didn’t, since Bacchanalia recently picked up its first Michelin star.
Like Brehm, Australian chef Sam Aisbett is constantly curious about the ingredients available in Singapore’s markets. At his posh modern Australian restaurant Whitegrass in Chijmes, the affable chef serves dishes with a distinctly Asian slant such as slow-roasted Mangalica pork with shaved Australian abalone, hand-made silken tofu, smoked onion cream and black moss.
“I saw it at the markets and bought some because I was curious,” he said when asked how black moss, an ingredient frequently used in Chinese New Year banquets, made its way into his food. “Restaurants tend to get the same ingredients in Singapore, so you have to do something to stand out, something familiar yet very different.”
Even century eggs are fair game for the chef, who cut his teeth at Peter Gilmore’s Quay in Sydney, Australia. “The yolk has too much ammonia, but I love the whites. I use them like jelly, on top of a dish of butter-poached quail,” he enthused.
Express Your Self
For today’s generation of Asian chefs trained in Western techniques, using Asian ingredients is very much a part of expressing their heritage. At his contemporary restaurant Meta, chef Sun Kim injects every course with a hint of his Korean heritage by cooking the likes of octopus in gochujang (hot pepper paste), marinating lamb in doenjang (fermented soybean paste), and pickling melon in Korean plum vinegar. On the plate, each dish is artfully presented nouvelle-style — a twist of zucchini here, a painterly splash of celeriac puree there.
Kim trained under the wing of Japanese-Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda at his eponymous restaurant in Sydney, Australia and at his Singapore outpost Waku Ghin. Understandably, his mentor’s influence is evident in his food, which is light, elegant and consistently imbued with bright and deep flavours. In his last winter menu, Kim riffed on Korean beef bulgolgi by way of classic French beef tartar. Raw Australian Wagyu was tossed in soy, garlic and sesame oil, and then brightened with julienned pears lightly seasoned with kimchi. There were dabs of sous vide egg and a showering of puffed rice, which gave the dish crunch, harmony and a distinct Asian accent.
Kim’s Korean roots also influence his ethos of cooking seasonal fare. “My menu is based on the way we eat according to the seasons in Korea,” said the 32-year-old. “For example, in summer, we eat spicy fruit because it makes you sweat. And we believe that when you perspire, you cool down.” This explains dishes like a raw oyster swathed in a lemon-ginger dressing and salmon tartar served with pickled melons.
For Singaporean chef Alex Phan, who heads the kitchen at Restaurant Ember, the bounty of produce available in his immediate vicinity informs his menu’s concept, which he calls “market-to-table”. This means daily visits in the morning to the nearby Chinatown market and collaborations with local producers. Naturally, his dishes embody Singapore’s diverse cultural influences, such as pan-fried foie gras drizzled with a sauce redolent of Chinese five-spice and torched ginger, and crunchy chunks of local rose apple (jambu).
Just two years ago, Singaporean chef Jonathan Koh wouldn’t have been caught dead using anything Asian in his renditions of French cuisine. The executive chef of French restaurant OCF was dead set on staying true to the cuisine he had mastered under the tutelage of his mentor chef David Mollicone, who now helms La Villa Augusta in Valance, France. “But I often tell my guests to be open-minded with their food, which means I have to be open-minded about my ingredients too, in order to evolve.”
Once he opened his mind to the possibilities of Asian ingredients in French cuisine, it all came naturally. Koh says, “It’s difficult to explain. I guess being Asian, having lived in Asia and having eaten Asian food since young, I know how each flavour should be prepared and matched in a dish just from experience.”
At lunch, Koh sent us a dish of grilled Beijing cabbage sprinkled with shavings of white chocolate and truffles, and accompanied by a dark chocolate sauce. On paper, it all sounds like a bizarre combination, but in the mouth, all those rich, dark and earthy flavours came together deliciously.
Like many other chefs, Koh uses a lot of Japanese produce such as Kyoho grapes and Hida beef from the Gifu Prefecture. The produce’s excellent quality aside, Japan’s proximity to Singapore is one of the main draws of importing ingredients from the country. “(Compared to importing ingredients from Europe), the food does not have to go through a 16-hour flight to get here. This increases the freshness of the product too,” said Koh.
Chef Emmanuel Stroobant of fine dining restaurant St Pierre added that Japanese ingredients are particularly popular in Singapore because France and Japan are in the northern hemisphere and therefore share the same seasons. “When it is mushroom season in France, it is also mushroom season in Japan,” he explained. “We get equally fresh and quality ingredients from Japan within a short span of time compared to France.”
As the world grows smaller every day, using ingredients considered unusual just a few years ago in fine dining fare is now par for the course. If nothing else, experimenting with new ingredients helps a chef to grow, evolve his cuisine and offer his diners ever more options about which they can get excited.
“I think it’s a good trademark for a chef,” says Brehm. “If you take a chef from Singapore and drop him in Peru, is he going to use the local ingredients to cook? There are chefs and there are chefs. The latter is always going to be curious and want to use what’s around him.”
As the revered French cuisinier Pierre Gagnaire once said. “Food, like fashion, needs to constantly change. The hard part is to make that change original and ultimately, taste good.”
By Annette Tan